" ... I don't want to be on his family's Christmas cards or to take up an inordinate amount of his time. I just want to know who he is."
"I feel like half a person."
"I wish he simply knew I exist."
If you are a man who gets a woman pregnant after meeting her in a bar, you cannot legally hide your identity from your child, nor walk away from at least minimal responsibility as a father. Yet if you wish anonymously to sell your sperm to a sperm bank, you can remain hidden from your child forever.
No one knows how many persons are conceived each year in the U.S. through anonymous sperm donation. Experts estimate it could be somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 annually, but the numbers are only a guess because the U.S. government does not require reporting or tracking of such pregnancies. For the fertility industry, anonymity is the grease that keeps the machinery going. It allows men (and women) in exchange for money to conceive offspring they never have to meet or acknowledge. It allows parents who wish to purchase sperm or eggs not to have to tell their child the truth about how the child was conceived. And, it has allowed our society to avoid the uncomfortable fact that we are creating two classes of persons, those who have the legal right to know their origins and those who are legally forbidden to learn the same thing.
Now, anonymity is being turned on its head. This week saw the launch of the first-ever online story collective for donor conceived persons and others involved in reproductive technologies. AnonymousUs.org allows persons conceived through sperm donation and similar practices to tell their stories anonymously, without fear of hurting their parents, getting flamed on the Internet, or having to go on record about intimate details of their lives. The brainchild of donor-conceived activist Alana S. (who is also a blogger at the site I edit, FamilyScholars.org), AnonymousUs.org is already filled with powerful stories from donor conceived persons, donors, legal parents, adoptees, and others whose lives have intersected with these technologies, with new stories being added daily.
The stories echo and affirm research that colleagues and I published last year in a report, My Daddy's Name Is Donor. They tell us that bodies matter. That to be deliberately denied knowledge of where you come from is painful and bewildering, at any age. That the human longing to know where you fit in the human family extends also to donor conceived persons. That the fertility industry is rife with contradictions, praising donations and altruism when in fact cold cash fuels each transaction, minimizing the significance of biological connections for children even as the biological connections desired by would-be parents are served, and undermining the importance of ancestry even as other aspects of U.S. and international law and great swaths of culture devoted to genealogical and ethnic studies affirm just the opposite.
The stories at AnonymousUs.org tell us what it's like to grow up in a world where almost no one -- including the parents who raise you -- understands what it's like to be conceived deliberately denied knowledge of or a relationship with one of your biological parents. In a story called "Jaws of Life" one young person asks:
"How could my own parents decide to deliberately separate me from my kin, to grow up half blinded to my own identity? If they couldn't face telling me the truth about what they had done, why did they do it?"
"How could the doctors, sworn to 'first do no harm' create the system where I now face the pain and loss of my own identity and heritage?"
"How could the government, charged with protecting the most vulnerable members of the community, its children, legislate to make it illegal for me to know the identity of my biological father? How can its institutions subject me to the psychological torture of knowing that records exist, but I am forbidden to know the contents?"
"How could my donor help create me, and then abandon me without even leaving his name?"
In a story titled "Missing Pieces," one 19-year-old writes of struggling to protect the feelings of his or her mother and social father, even while coming to terms with painful personal losses. The storyteller writes, "I have to be so careful not to upset anyone about it, when really, it's me that's upset!"
Others, like those quoted at the beginning of this post, plead that all they are looking for are simple realities that most of us take for granted. They want to know who their father is. They want their father to know who they are. They want to feel whole. The titles of their stories say it all: "Alone." "Silence." "Beginnings and Ends." "Filling Out the Story." "I Have a Right to Know."
Anonymity has fueled the practice of deliberately denying children and young people the identity of their fathers. Now, it is allowing those very young people to tell their own stories, in their own way. A new generation of would-be parents, doctors and policy makers would be wise to listen. These young people are voicing a truth at once utterly simple yet breathtakingly profound: Fathers matter. For everyone.
BIO: Elizabeth Marquardt is editor of FamilyScholars.org and coauthor of "My Daddy's Name is Donor: A New Study of Young Adults Conceived Through Sperm Donation."